The 'Ghosts' Of Rome's Loss At The Battle Of Cannae Ancient Rome is often thought of as consistently victorious but its defeat at the hands of Carthage in 216 B.C. is one of the most studied and imitated battles of all time. Historian Robert L. O'Connell tells the story of Carthage's unexpected victory in The Ghosts of Cannae.
NPR logo

The 'Ghosts' Of Rome's Loss At The Battle Of Cannae

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128490878/128490869" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The 'Ghosts' Of Rome's Loss At The Battle Of Cannae

The 'Ghosts' Of Rome's Loss At The Battle Of Cannae

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128490878/128490869" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

It is one of the most studied battles of history, and it took place in 216 B.C. Carthage's stunning victory over Rome at Cannae was brutal, brilliant and entirely unexpected. The Carthaginian commander, Hannibal, enveloped a larger Roman army and annihilated it. Rome lost more men in that one day than the United States lost in Vietnam. And Cannae changed the world, but, again, maybe not in the way you expect.

In a new book, Robert L. O'Connell traces the history of Rome's wars with Carthage and why the brilliant Hannibal could win so many battles and yet still lose the war. And Robert O'Connell joins us now from the studios of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. ROBERT L. O'CONNELL (Author, "The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic"): Thanks, Neal. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And if you have questions for Robert O'Connell about Carthage's victory over Rome or Hannibal and his unfortunate elephant addiction, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And Robert O'Connell, you write that Hannibal was a genius at military tactics but that he really should have known from the very beginning there was no way he was going to win.

Mr. O'CONNELL: That's really true, Neal. Carthage was essentially a naval power, and Hannibal was a land general through a sort of odd turn of circumstance. And he was invading a country that was basically strange territory, and it had huge manpower resources which Carthage didn't have. And actually, the Carthaginians weren't that enthusiastic about this particular war. So they only reinforced Hannibal one time with a small contingent in the entire time he was in - on the Italian Peninsula, which was 13 years.

CONAN: Thirteen years that Hannibal was going around the countryside of Italy. Well, for much it, he was pretty much bottled up in the south. But nevertheless, he hoped all of that time and believed that Rome's allies, its other states there in Italy, would desert the oppressor and rally to his cause.

Mr. O'CONNELL: He did. And one of the problems if you can fantasize that Hannibal looked at Rome's alliance structure through an X-ray and all he saw were the bones. What he really needed was an MRI that would have shown the connective tissue, and that connective tissue were the personal relationships that Rome established between its own leading citizens and the leading citizens of its allies, the client - patron-client relationships. That were the - that held the Roman alliance together. And he never fully understood its strength, so he was unable to break it even though, technically, he won battle after battle.

CONAN: Indeed, really only lost the last battle, but it turned out you could win a dozen victories over Rome and not win the war. And if you lose one, you're toast.

Mr. O'CONNELL: Pretty much. That was pretty much the - one of the reasons that the Romans made the terrible mistake of bringing such a huge army to Cannae is they believed if we beat this guy once, he's finished. But in the end, they were actually right. But it took an awful long time, and it took time for them to develop a general good enough to beat Hannibal. And when that general, interestingly enough, wanted to invade Africa, where Carthage was, to draw Hannibal off, the powers that be at Rome didn't want him to do that.

They wanted him to sort of stay in Italy and watch Hannibal. And because he was so popular - this fellow's name was Scipio Africanus or Publius Cornelius Scipio - he was able to actually force a decision to let him invade Africa. But then they said, yeah, but we're not giving you an army. And what was fascinating was he went to Sicily to stage the invasion and built out of the survivors of Cannae a new army that eventually beat Hannibal.

What was interesting about this is they - how did these survivors get to Sicily. They were essentially - after they lost the battle, the Romans were so mortified that they actually banished these guys to Sicily as garrison troops, and there they stayed for 13 years.

CONAN: "The Ghosts of Cannae" and thus the title of the...

Mr. O'CONNELL: They are "The Ghosts of Cannae." That's right.

CONAN: ...the title of your book. Of course, Scipio was himself a survivor of Cannae.

Mr. O'CONNELL: He was. And he understood that these survivors were in no way cowardly or in no way at fault. They'd actually fought their way out of the -off the battlefield in desperate circumstances and they were as brave as any other Roman soldiers, and yet they had been stigmatized by the Roman Senate.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert L. O'Connor(ph) about his book "Ghosts of Cannae." 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Jonathan(ph) is on the line from Trenton, New Jersey.

JONATHAN (Caller): Hello.

Mr. O'CONNELL: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Hi. I had a question. I read a diary of a Roman soldier, and it suggested that Scipio had poisoned Hannibal's elephants. Do you know anything about that?

Mr. O'CONNELL: Scipio had poisoned Hannibal's elephants.

JONATHAN: Mm-hmm. He had used some military tax to sort of render them useless, but he also had sent spies to poison his elephants.

Mr. O'CONNELL: Well, I can - I hadn't heard that story before, but I tend to doubt it under the grounds that Scipio probably understood that actually Hannibal's element - elephants were his own worst enemy.

One of the problems with panzer pachyderms is that initially they seemed like great weapons to the Carthaginians who weren't great soldiers. These things could go out on the battlefield and of sort squash Romans at will. But the problem was these beasts were easily panicked and frequently squashed Carthaginians too. So, usually it was a disaster with elephants.

CONAN: By the time of Cannae, the elephants that had come across the Alps with Hannibal had all died...

Mr. O'CONNELL: They'd all die, yeah.

CONAN: ...yet when he went back to Africa to defend Carthage at the Battle of Zama, he recruited new hordes of elephants.

Mr. O'CONNELL: He did. He had an unfortunate penchant for elephants. But there was also the problem that he was basically pulling an army together out of three separate forces that he understood - only his own relatively small army would fight really well.

The other forces that he got for the Carthaginians and Numidians he understood were not that great. So he tried to mask the whole thing with a huge number of elephants. Carthage had a lot of elephants because these things called bush elephants, which weren't quite as big as Indian or African elephants, but they were a good size, were fairly prevalent in North Africa then. They're extinct now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. O'CONNELL: But I think that probably he got a lot of half-trained elephants, too. So these elephants were even more of a disaster than usual for Carthaginian armies.

CONAN: Jonathan, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JONATHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here is an email from Dennis(ph) in Aguadilla in Puerto Rico. The legacy of Hannibal's excursion through Spain lives on today at least in Puerto Rico, where names like Annibal, Hannibal, Amilcar, Hamilcar, Abdulio, Abdul, Omar, Ishmael and then surname Cartagena, Carthage, are fairly common. Nevertheless, this little quirk of cultural history is apparently lost on most of its heirs.

Let's see if we can go next to Sherry(ph), Sherry with us from Portsmouth in Virginia.

SHERRY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

SHERRY: My question is about how the professor feels the best way is to connect past history, ancient history to current day lives which is the work that I do here in Virginia in terms of our local Virginia American history.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. O'CONNELL: Well, I...

SHERRY: I...

Mr. O'CONNELL: Do you want me - try to answer that or is there more to your question?

CONAN: Yeah. Id like you to.

Mr. O'CONNELL: Yeah. I'd say that in - I'd like to address that two ways. One is I think it's really - one of the things that I'm trying to do in "The Ghosts of Cannae" is to emphasize more narrative history. I've wrote - mainly written analytic history and I've come to feel that human beings are really storytelling beasts, and people come to history for narrative. And I think that slipped away from us to some degree. And I hope - there seems to be a new trend to write more narrative that will make people read history which then hopefully it will be more relevant to their daily lives.

In terms of the specifics of this book, one of the things I really feel strongly about is that the horrible treatment of the survivors of Cannae. The Roman Senate didn't treat veterans well. And in deed within two centuries the veterans became more loyal to the generals than they did to their own government because this trend persisted. And it really did lead to the collapse of the Roman Republic and the beginning of Roman empires - emperors. So, you take these things sort of selectively.

Neal, at the beginning of the interview, talked about Hannibal as winning all the battles but losing the war. Again, we have an excellent military which has performed well recently in a number of conflicts, but the political results aren't there. And so I think you can draw some of these analogies. As Mark Twain said, history seldom repeats itself but frequently it rhymes.

CONAN: Hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHERRY: Very much, though. And I - oh, thank you very much for that - saying that because when we teach history in public school, what we get are people being taught by talking about lectures about dead people and dates, which I love history and that makes my eyes glaze over. So the idea that we'd stick -you know, use the narrative as a way of engaging people in this history is a way of also helping them understand current-day issues is, I think, imperative and easily done using the theater arts. So, that's my plug for that and thanks for the opportunity.

CONAN: Thanks, Sherry.

Mr. O'CONNELL: Thank you.

CONAN: It is also interesting that both of these men either modeled themselves deliberately to some degree - and we're talking about Scipio and Hannibal - or were modeled by their admirers after Alexander the Great.

Mr. O'CONNELL: Yeah. I really do think that that's been somewhat underestimated, just the enormous impact that Alexander had on the Mediterranean basin, not just in the Greek world but also in Italy and also even in Carthage, which is essentially a Phoenician or you could call the Carthaginians probably Phoenicians on steroids.

But all these people seem to have tried to model themselves on Alexander. Hannibal, the very act of bringing his army over the Alps, was something of a stunt. It sort of one-upped Alexander. He just crossed the Hellespont.

CONAN: And Scipio could lead an army of tens of thousands through the snowy passes of the Alps while barbarians were shattering his lines with boulders and fleeting him into traps.

Mr. OCONNELL: Right. Right. Right. Right.

CONAN: And interesting, though, it is in Spain - how much of the story happens in Spain is fascinating. But part of it, when Scipio is first there and one of the tribes, after a great victory over the forces of Carthage, one of the tribes wants to declare him king, and he says, no, no, no, no, no. King, that would go over very badly in Rome. We have very bad experience with kings. Call me imperator.

Mr. OCONNELL: Right. Right. Its the first time a Roman general had been called imperator. And it got the attention of the Senate. The Senate when Scipio came back from this great victory in Spain, which was very important because Spain was the home base of Hannibal and his family as well as the Carthaginians when he came back, the Senate looked very suspiciously at him, and this statement of calling him imperator was brought up in the debates. Its one of the reasons they didnt want to give him an army to invade Africa.

CONAN: It would be not the last time imperator would be used to describe a Roman general.

Mr. OCONNELL: No, no.

CONAN: Robert OConnell, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. OCONNELL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Robert L. OConnells book is called The Ghosts of Cannae. You can read about how the Roman historian Polybius described the Battle of Cannae at our website. Thats at npr.org. He joined us from the studios of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.